EXCLUSIVE: Oscar-winning writer-director Stephen Gaghan just turned in his first TV pilot, an untitled Los Angeles drama at NBC (formerly knows as SILA). Now Gaghan has signed his first TV overall deal with the studio producing the pilot, 20th Century Fox TV. Under the two-year pact, Gaghan will continue to oversee the NBC show if it goes to series and will develop other projects through his newly named Unsupervised TV production company, which will be run by Suzanne Joskow. He already has two projects in very early stages for Fox, a Washington, DC drama and an animated comedy.
Gaghan said he knew he wanted to be a writer when he was 7, much to the chagrin of his mother, who gave him the example of his writing/drinking grandfather, a newspaper journalist and music critic. “You’ll live in misery and you’ll go, and by that I mean you’ll die,” she told him. Gaghan was on track to fulfill his mom’s prophesy when he was kicked out of high school his senior year for driving a go-kart through the school’s administrative offices. But writing short stories took him to the Paris Review, where he worked for a while, and his love for TV, particularly The Simpsons, resulted in him writing an epic 80-page spec script for the veteran Fox animated series. Surprisingly, it almost landed him a job on the show, but he instead started off with a freelance gig on New York Undercover, which led to staff positions on the first season of American Gothic and the first 13 episodes of The Practice. He also co-wrote with David Milch and Michael R. Perry an episode of NYPD Blue that earned them an Emmy in 1997. While working in TV, Gaghan was also writing feature scripts, and in 1997 he switched to films full-time, writing Rules of Engagement, Abandon, Havoc, Traffic (which won him an Oscar), and Syriana, and directing Abandon and Syriana. It was while he was working on the script for sprawling drug trafficking drama Traffic that he started thinking about returning to television. “I love that multiple narrative structure to play with,” he said. “The form of television lands itself to longer arcs, more scenes, more in-depth exploration of who people are. It’s the Russian novel compared to the haiku (that films are),” added Gaghan, a fan of Russian classics like Anna Karenina and War & Peace.
About two years ago, he took the idea for SILA — a complex drama in the vein of Traffic set in the world of crime, law enforcement and politics in modern-day Los Angeles — to then-ABC chief Steve McPherson, who committed to greenlighting it. Despite the fact that a formal deal couldn’t close, Gaghan spent a year researching and writing the script, but just as he was turning it in last summer, McPherson left ABC. After new ABC president Paul Lee eventually read it and passed, 20th TV-based producer Peter Chernin and his executive Katherine Pope became interested in the spec. Meanwhile, Gaghan was planning to turn the 62-page script into a feature. He had just seen the Italian movie Gomorrah, and his script reminded him of it. “I thought I was half-way to Gomorrah,” Gaghan quipped. But Chernin had a different idea. He is close with new NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt dating back to their days together at Fox and told him about the script. Greenblatt called Gaghan on his first day at NBC and set up a breakfast meeting. “When I was driving to the breakfast, I was convinced I was going to make the script into a movie; when I left the breakfast, I was excited about the possible TV show,” Gaghan said. Greenblatt quickly greenlighted the script to pilot, which cast Jimmy Smits, Danny Pino, Noah Emmerich and Madchen Amick as leads. Gaghan is happy with the pilot. “I think its like a cool movie, we’ve got great cast and some cool performances,” he said, adding, “this is the most fun I’ve had shooting, the best experience I’ve had making anything.” 20th TV chairman Gary Newman said he was also “very happy” with how Gaghan’s pilot turned out. He, along with fellow chairman Dana Walden, had been trying to get in business with Gaghan for a while, having first seen his work on the studio’s The Practice. “He is exactly the type of writer the studio looks for — he is wildly creative, extremely bright and gifted. He looks at things differently and the way he tells stories from multiple points of view is very specific; he has a knack for that.” Said Gaghan, “it took me half a second to decide that I wanted to be in business with 20th and do more television.” In addition to writing, producing and directing himself, Gaghan plans to develop through his company projects by young writers, providing the same mentoring help that he once received by the likes of Michael Tolkin, Milch, Steven Soderbergh and Ed Zwick. Despite ramping up in TV in a big way, WME-repped Gaghan will also keep one foot still firmly planted in features, where he has a spy project at Warner Bros and another one at Lionsgate in advanced stages of development.